In a break with tradition, for December only, we’ve opted to substitute our usual Book of the Month for an Album of the Month – Dan Michaelson’s First Light, out today via The state51 Conspiracy. Will Burns reviews.
I was watching Emmylou Harris once when between songs, after playing one of her and Gram Parsons’ famous numbers, she said something like, ‘Those sad songs make me so happy’. A neat line, of course, but also a statement of fact about a certain strain of what I guess we might call folk music, or musics. Perhaps it is something to do with our sense of the word ‘song’ itself, which suggests so much to the imagination — time as deep history, our languages being used to manufacture our stories, our art, our sense of self, magic in fact. And all magic, like love, should have its keynote of sorrow. Ask Malcolm Lowry, who was also a tragic singer of songs.
It might seem an obvious starting point for a review of new music from Dan Michaelson, all this talk of sadness, but it’s that sweet spot of despair and hope that he has so deftly captured on his new solo record, First Light. It’s a plain-spoken kind of poetry that Michaelson has always traded in, and his clear-eyed lyrical vision is just as robust, open, and intelligent as ever here. Take the second song, ‘Sand’, where the singer and his subject can recover any of their losses by the invocation of an act as simple as holding hands. A kind of cycle of song, with a melody building from this pattern, it becomes a chant to these simple moments when love might win out.
The musical palette throughout is spare — piano, organ and acoustic guitars, but with a rich orchestral backdrop courtesy of arranger Arnulf Lindner. The pair have deployed the orchestral flourishes perfectly, avoiding melodrama and simply serving the songs and Michaelson’s deep, thick vocals. And that voice is the focal point of the album, an instrument of rare emotive power and with a musicality of its own, a growling, hungry presence that manages to communicate both weariness and urgency. It is a voice that compels the listener to do just that, to listen, while complex feelings, hard-won truths and the bleakness of things are being spoken.
If these songs take on the quality of those lucid first-light thoughts, half-dream or nightmare, half-epiphanic insights, it’s surely the album’s ultimate purpose — the record becoming a work with the strange ability to shift on you like thought or memory can in those early morning moments (Michaelson’s worst of the day), certain phrases appearing from the bed of musical texture apparently out of nowhere, a different line or lyric playing the same trick on each subsequent listen. This sense of half-consciousness, of being both present and not, is best rendered in the first song, where the singer’s reversals occur through a lack of care, or attentiveness, as much as through some definitive drama or decision. But here there is also a sense that, despite the ‘wordlessness’ of the singer, this is the space in which we might know ourselves best, if not our best selves, before the world of things has a chance to exert its full pressure.
It’s a sometimes bruising listen, and on first exposure feels a little like a set of variations rather than songs, but patient and attentive listening is, as ever, rewarded, with each song’s sense of itself and its place within the dynamics of the album’s themes coming more and more to the fore. In some ways it moves beyond the telling of common-or-garden love affairs (doomed or otherwise), or explorations of the moments relationships begin to unravel and starts to do the harder work of excavating the true nature of inter-personal sorrow, unmoored from narrative or tradition. As music, it moves beyond genre then, beyond a set of influences and tropes — testament again to the orchestration and the songs’ cyclic melodic sense, which are both just slippery enough to keep things that might otherwise come too easily just out of our grasp. As when Michaelson pleads with us on ‘Stone’ that ‘I can’t on my own’, which could so easily land flat and over-worn, but the fact is that none of us can. And Michaelson’s voice contains the sound of the knowledge that everybody sleeps, and so dies, alone.
First Light is out now and available here.